Storks put IAF fighter jets on alert in Judean Desert

"More than any other big enemy... even a very small bird can be a disaster," says birdwatcher helping monitor flocks to prevent collisions.

Storks (photo credit: Liron Ziv/SPNI)
(photo credit: Liron Ziv/SPNI)
Droves of migrating birds strike a remarkable sight as they swirl above head in flocks of some 5,000 birds at a time over the Judean Desert.
There are about seven hundred million birds flying over Israel twice every year during migration season, 600,000 of them white storks, explains Noam Attias.
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Attias, a birdwatcher for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, is perched atop a rocky hilltop overlooking the Jordan River Valley. She is also a former air force air traffic controller.
“When you see a pack of storks, even if it is small, or very, very big you see this mass of birds which are going up. Pelicans will do it in a very nice order. Storks will do it in all kinds of directions as they go up. And when they get to the top of this thermal that’s when they begin to glide. That is when they are in a really nice order and I can count them really easily and I can count them 10, 20, 30, 40 and so on,” says Attias.
On the edge of the Judean Desert, looking down on the sleepy town of Jericho, everything appears quite tranquil. But these are dangerous skies for Israeli fighter jets. The bird watcher’s delight is a pilot’s nightmare. Since the mid-1970’s, migrating buzzards, storks, pelicans and eagles have done more damage to Israeli fighter jets than all the Arab air forces combined.
This is due to Israel’s unique geographical and political predicament. It’s a tiny country with little air space, where one of the world’s biggest air forces flies right through what happens to be the main corridor for storks, pelicans and other birds of prey migrating from Europe and Asia to Africa and back every spring and fall. This “bottleneck” has fighter jets competing with birds over this very confined area.
Bird spotters, like Attias, monitor the flocks and relay the information to the air force. A special unit collects this information from her and others, adding it to their radar images to map out the areas jets should avoid.
Earlier in the day, Attias said she saw two F-16 fighter jets zooming by in the valley below her and immediately radioed to the air force that flocks were in the area. This was unusual since the air force has altered its training to avoid colliding with the birds.
“It is very hard for the pilot to see a bird coming. It’s a very small thing. The plane is flying really, really fast and as it comes into a bird the impact of the hit with the bird will be a lot of times bigger than it really is because of the velocity and it will crash,” Attias says. “It is one of the things that frighten our pilots the most. More than any other big enemy, this small thing, even a very small bird can be a disaster for our pilots.”
Incredibly, it wasn’t until the early 1980s that the Israel Air Force recognized that they could do something about reducing jet-bird hits. Lt.-Col. (ret.) Danny Grossman was the safety specialist put in charge of the endeavor in 1982.
“When I took over there were 100 to 120 bird strikes a year, including some incredible accidents and crashes,” Grossman told The Media Line. “Until then, a bird strike was viewed as an act of nature which there was nothing to do about it except get to a synagogue and pray.”
Grossman said the air force approached the bird issue as if it were a tactical problem similar to getting around enemy surface-to-air missiles and developed a doctrine to avoid them.
“If an aircraft is going 500 knots, or 800 miles-per-hour, then you are talking about a force of several tons,” Grossman said.
“We started gathering intelligence. We gave the birdwatchers a motorized glider and they helped us map out the migration routes,” he said. “We were shocked to find out that the birds flew the same air corridors, at specific altitudes and on very specific days every year.”
A plan was devised to alter training schedules to avoid the bird flocks. It took about two years to kick in and the results were dramatic.
“The number of collisions didn’t just drop. It fell out of the sky!” Grossman said.
The air force reported a 76 percent reduction in bird strikes, which is estimated to have saved over half a billion dollars between 1984 and 2001.
Today there are about 20 hits a year, a statistic that has held steady for the past 16 years. There are still cracked wings, destroyed engines and worse.  But it’s been over a dozen years since the last aircraft crashed due to a bird hit.
The air force realized that it could neither ignore nor compete with nature and each fall and spring it gives the enormous flocks plenty of room.
“Sometimes you find yourself standing for more than an hour and counting storks. They don’t stop coming. I’m jealous. I am jealous of their ability to fly, ability to glide,” Attias said.